Is Matt Damon Right That Teachers Make a "Shitty" Salary?


At last Saturday's "Save Our Schools" rally, a fairly livid actor Matt Damon told Reason.tv that teachers make a "shitty" salary. Is the Oscar winner right about that?

The short answer is no. The longer answer? Also no.

According to Department of Education statistics for 2007-2008 (the most recent year listed), the average public school teacher brought in a bit over $53,000 in "total school-year and summer earned income." That figure, which is about $13,000 more than what the average private-school teacher gets in straight salary, does not include health and retirement benefits, places where teachers almost always get better deals and bigger employer contributions than the typical private-sector worker. For more on teacher compensation, go here.

An average salary of $53,000 may not be much for a movie star such as Damon, but it's a pretty good wage when compared to U.S. averages. Indeed, the Census Bureau reports that median household income in 2008 was $52,000. Teaching in most public schools requires a bachelor's degree and here teachers fare less well on first glance, though still not awful. The median income for a man with a B.A. was $82,000; for a woman, it was $54,000. About three-quarters of teachers are women, so the average salaries when gender comes into play hew closely to one another.

More to the point, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other surveys that take into account the reported number of hours worked in a year consistently show that on a per-hour basis, teacher income (again, not including fringe benefits, which are typically far more robust than those offered other workers, including college-educated professionals) is extremely strong. To wit:


So teachers are not compensated poorly. And, as the link above suggests and contrary to another assertion made by Damon, it turns out that teachers don't work long hours. At least not compared to other professionals.

None of this is to argue that teaching is easy or unimportant. But K-12 educators are not paid poorly. They may have good reason to be mad at their collective bargaining units, however. Since 1991, teacher salaries have generally kept pace with inflation while inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding has gone up by more than 25 percent. So even as more dollars are heading to schools, teachers aren't grabbing much of it, at least not at the same rate as the per-pupil funding increases. Their unions and negotiators may be grabbing more. There are more teachers per student than ever before, so it appears that part of the money is going into more staffing rather than paying existing employees more.

The bottom line: Teachers are not paid poorly relative to the average worker or to other professionals.

Now can we get back to a far more important question: How in the hell is sending even more money to a broken system going to help the students for whom schools exist in the first place?

The short answer is that it won't. The slightly longer answer? Read more here.